Lives and Stories that Inspire

The Story of Ümmiye Koçak
By:  Derya Uzun On March 9, 2022
Director Ümmiye Koçak

Reading books is interpreted differently by different people. For some, it can be a complete ‘ordeal,’ while for others; it can be a series of seemingly endless journeys. However, no matter what stage of our lives we are in, even if we have forgotten what is written in it, it will change and beautify our lives in the future. Just as drinking breast milk as a baby strengthens one’s immunity later, reading books makes a difference. I will show that difference in this story.

In 1957, a little girl was born in a small, but adorable, village in southern Turkey, sixth out of ten siblings. It had been forbidden for her be educated. One day, she heard from the mosque that ‘at least one girl from each house will go to school, and if she doesn’t, one of the parents will be imprisoned.’ She began primary school ‘by chance,’ as she put it, because her sister refused to attend.

‘Ummiye, go get my book from the table, girl,’ his teacher said one day. The little girl dashed out into the hallway. On her way back, she looked at the book’s cover and saw the title ‘Mother,’ by Maxim Gorky. She was intrigued and decided to open it because the photograph resembled her mother. The stories in it described her village in the same way, but with different names. That day, she took the book and read it overnight; without realizing it, she began giving the names of those in the book to those in her village. During this time, she completed elementary school, which she had started by chance.

This girl grew up, married, and moved to another village as a bride. Women in her home village typically stayed at home and worked on household chores. Those in this village worked constantly, in the garden, in the field, and caring for their children, while the men were having a good time in the coffee shop. Everyone in this village came to tell her about their problems; she would listen but couldn’t do anything. Ayşe complains about Fatma, Ahmet criticizes Mehmet, the neighbors argue about their chickens, and they don’t understand each other. Women who had been subjected to violence by their husbands or mothers-in-law would come and tell her as if they were talking about someone else, but Mrs. Ummiye was well aware of the situation and would be silent.

One day, by chance, a theater came to this village. Mrs. Ummiye went and sat at the beginning and watched, thinking “what is the real name of those who play plays” throughout the theater. Finally, she couldn’t stand it and asked. The young boy said, “My auntie, that’s not my real name, it’s my stage name.” She realized “What they were doing was theater; they were actually completely different people!” She went home that day and thought over and over. She thought of the book where she read Maxim Gorky. She was going to do theater! She could tell what happened in the village by giving the people different names.

She started reading theater books that she found. Another time she went to the women who made bread and began by asking them questions such as, “Are you doing so much work; does anyone ever thank you? Has anyone ever told you thanks for the food because you cooked? Is anyone concerned about you when you work hard and become exhausted?” From one mouth, all the women said ‘No.’

“Let’s show them this; I’ll do the theater; will you come with me?” she inquired. “We have a lot of work, and our husbands won’t let us, and it’s a shame,” women said. “I will convince your husbands, as long as you say yes!” she had persisted. “And if they don’t clap, if they don’t show up, would it be difficult for us? They  never clap anyway.”

Ümmiye Koçak established the Arslanköy Women’s Theater Community, named after the village where she lived. She has written over 30 plays, directed them, and acted in them. She has directed television shows and films. She has worked on international projects as well as commercials. She won several awards, including the Adana International Theater Festival Award, the New York Eurasian Film Festival Award for the Best Female Artist in Cinema, and the Ankara International Theater Festival Award. First and foremost, she was a pioneer in getting village women’s voices heard. (SDG5)

Of course, it wasn’t just one book that brought her to this point; it was her reading of many books, as well as hard work and her reading of people and her environment.

Have you read any books that allow you to make a difference in your environment? I hope that beautiful books will find their way to you when you need them the most.

If you would like to know more about her:

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Copyright 2022 D. Uzun and SHERPA Institute.  All rights reserved – please cite and link to this web page.

By Derya Uzun

Derya Uzun, from Turkey and currently residing in Cyprus, is the SHERPA Institute UN SDG Corporate Guidebook Series Community Care Coordinator, maintaining multiple global communities of the 100+ contributors from diverse industries, as well as the Young Professionals Group. She holds two bachelor’s degrees in International Trade and Finance and in Sociology. Derya is currently studying the Chinese Language and Literature with a full scholarship from Confucius Institute. Derya has been involved in NGOs and organizations, national and international. Uzun is the Co-founder of a new initiative, SUS TALKS, a publication organization working on sustainability through various approaches. Very passionate about writing, she has written articles in Turkish, Chinese, and English for different magazines and organizations. Currently, Derya is preparing to launch her first website, named United Stories, which tells stories about sustainability for children. This storytelling effort is a continuation of her early social responsibility awareness and action with the “Book Reading Club” that she established at age eleven. She pioneered the procurement of books not found in her city from outside the city so that all children could read them. This project spread throughout the city and children started to obtain the books they could not have, from the city’s National Education Directorate for free. In addition, she carried out personal projects and campaigns to recognize the right to education of the girls around her. She continues to take part in projects and communities related to SDG 5 Gender Equality, which has great meaning for her. Derya is a Young Member and she has been appointed to the United Nations Standing Committee in the years (2021-2024) of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW International) which develops the professional, leadership, and business potential of women on all levels through advocacy, mentoring, networking, skill-building, and economic empowerment programs and projects around the world. She is an alumna member of the Turkish Women’s International Network (TurkishWIN), which is a global member network empowering women with cultural, family, or professional ties to Turkey with chapters in Istanbul, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and London. Derya is also active on several Social Responsibility Projects engages in a variety of volunteer and community activities, such as a Volunteer for International Day of the Belt and Road (一带一路国际日志愿者), an Ambassador for SDG 5 in Sustainable mPact. She is taking place in Maya Idea Club, Learning Designs, a social enterprise that supports all actors in designing quality education. She is a Middle East Climate Ambassador in JDFMediaUKTV which is an independent Climate Change News and digital/social media networking platform. In her private life, she loves writing and drawing. She has started to write a storybook for children in the near future that she will personally draw. She always thinks the real miracle is in the seeds. As a girl who grew up on a farm since childhood, she had the opportunity to see this. She was surrounded by trees and animals growing with her. Still, whenever she has the opportunity, she takes great pleasure in spending time in the garden, with the soil, and with the animals. She has a little girl named Kuzu (she is a cat) who loves jumping and disturbing Derya while she is working, and playing with insects. And as a show of her love, Kuzu even gifted Derya with some of them.

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